With the U.S. midterm elections just behind us, to continue Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of conversations about the limiting beliefs that we as a collective must release and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, Rebecca sat down with Nick Turner—president and director of the Vera Institute for Justice—to unpack two of the most toxic limiting beliefs in American politics that flared up dramatically in the recent midterms: the notion that you have to be “tough on crime” to win political office, and that safety requires tough on crime policies. They had a far-ranging conversation about expanding consciousness around America’s broken criminal legal system in recent years—and how safety and justice can actually go hand in hand.
- Learn more about the Vera Institute for Justice’s work here
- Dig into Vera’s polling on crime and safety narratives and the midterms here
- Follow Nick (@nickturner718) and the Vera Institute (@verainstitute) on Twitter
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and I’m a former legal aid lawyer turned policy advocate who works with public policy and law, as well as organizing, coalition building, and narrative as tools for building a more just society, one premised on collective consciousness of our common humanity and the inherent dignity and rights that come with being human. Every week I talk with visionary leaders working to reinvigorate our shared imagination and disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
I’ve been out with COVID for a few weeks, so friendly reminder that the pandemic is not over, and I’m glad to say I’m finally getting back on the horse. So, with the U.S. midterm elections just behind us, to continue the series of conversations we’ve been having on Off-Kilter about the limiting beliefs we as a collective must repeal and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, I sat down with Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute for Justice, to unpack two of the most toxic limiting beliefs in American politics today, both of which flared up dramatically in the recent midterms: the notion that you have to be tough on crime to win political office, and the notion that safety requires tough-on-crime policies. We had a far-ranging conversation about expanding consciousness around America’s broken criminal legal system and how safety and justice can actually go hand in hand. You can find lots more about the Vera Institute’s work in show notes. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Nick, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show. It’s been a little while.
NICK TURNER: It has been a while. I’m happy to be with you.
VALLAS: Well, and it feels like it was a different lifetime the last time that we were talking, in many different regards. But I can’t think of a better time to be having this conversation as we’re sort of fresh on the heels of American midterm elections. And we’ll come back to that, and that’ll be some of what we talk about today. But before we go there, I’m gonna offer you the same question that I generally offer guests as we embark upon conversations on this show, which is to ask, how do you come to this work? We can get into talking about what the Vera Institute is and what it does and all of that, but I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you personally come to this work.
TURNER: Rebecca, I’d love to, and I have to admit that it feels like it’s been like five lifetimes in the last five years. There’s been so much dynamism and change in our world. But yeah. So, let me say a little bit about where I am now and then sort of take us on a journey in the Wayback Machine in terms of how I got to where I am. And you should stop me if I become too verbally prolific in telling the story. But so, just very brief. I am the president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, which is a national organization that works to end mass incarceration and overcriminalization and to make sure that all communities have safety and justice and are thriving. And we do our work by connecting with government leaders who share our values, who want to institute change, but also impacted communities who are driving change. And we’re a place that’s about producing real solutions, not just identifying problems or writing about the solutions, but actually driving those solutions into the ground so they affect real people.
A little bit about how I got here. I mean, I guess when I stop and think about my life, there are four things that really, that I think I’m rooted in. The first thing is who I am. I’m a Black and Filipino man. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and my mom comes from Manila. My dad was born and raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. And I’m really the product of them. I mean, they were exceptional people, exceptionally talented. My mom remains exceptionally talented. She’s gonna be listening to this, so I have to make sure to say, [laughs] to say that. And they’re both doctors, and my dad was one step removed, one generation removed from the Great Migration. His mom came up from South Carolina, had a traumatic and difficult youth and upbringing, and came to Brooklyn. My mom came from Manila, met my dad. They were both studying to be doctors. And she fell in love with him and stayed here in the States.
And so, I was raised in an environment of general privilege, to be frank, in Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C. And I don’t know that I totally recognized that at the time, but one of the things that I definitely knew was that what I saw in them was that this was a country of opportunity, of the potential to grow and be and to strive and to have ambition and to be things. My dad, when he was raised in Bed-Stuy, he would take a bus an hour and a half to go to the best public school that was in Brooklyn, in Midwood. He was one of two Black students who got admitted to Amherst College and then eventually went to Yale Medical School. So, I saw potential and power. I think another thing that was really meaningful for me was that I grew up in an ethos of care for community and giving and service. In part, I was raised Catholic, and so that was just part of the overall doctrine. But I also went to a Quaker school where tolerance and community and service were a big part of the ethos.
But what really changed my life, I think, was when I returned to Washington after my time in college, and I worked at an organization called Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which was a youth services organization. It’s a really tough time in D.C. It was from 1989 to 1993, and that was a time when crime was spiking, crack was fairly new, and so there was a sense of disarray and desperation in the city. And I was working with young people who were getting caught up in the justice system. Their behaviors were criminalized, and they were being drawn deeper and deeper into a system that was becoming more and more draconian, more and more harsh and punishing. And the contrast of seeing these young people who were like six or seven years younger than I was, but only four miles from where I went to school when I grew up in D.C.
And I should just say a little, you know, I went to this Quaker school, Sidwell Friends, that probably many people have heard of. We had a class of about 100 people. Sixteen of us went to Yale College, and half of us went to Ivy League schools. So, it was a profound font of privilege and mobility. And then to work with these young people who were just as bright and clever and ambitious and full of promise and to see the trajectories that they had simply because they were born in a zip code that was four miles east of where I went to school was a profound awakening for me. And it was something that I could never really unsee. And I promised myself that I wouldn’t unsee that because what I saw was that the systems of support that existed for me when I was growing up—my parents, my school, my community—didn’t exist for them. And I wanted to fix those things.
And so, the last thing that sort of drew me into the work that I do now was that I ended up going to law school because I wanted to become more sophisticated about how do you fix these systems? And what I learned in law school was there’s structures and laws that reinforce this racial caste system that we have that, whether you look historically, redlining, and we might talk about Brown versus the Board of Education, but school segregation lasted forever after that because of all deliberate speed had no speed at all. Or that the safety net that I was familiar with, the government safety net, was not available to everyone and that there are a tangle of regulations that denied opportunity and cut off human potential. I mean, like some of those that I think that you’ve worked on Rebecca, the Clean Slate Initiative, where regulations don’t allow people who have left prison to be able to obtain jobs; they’re barred from certain jobs. Or even thinking about things like how public schools are funded on the basis of local property taxes. And so, I became sophisticated in law school about the structures and the infrastructure that puts in place and reinforces a racial caste system. And that’s what really drove me to come to a place like Vera where I thought I could work on undoing them. That was a lot.
VALLAS: I love how—
TURNER: I’m sorry. That was like—
VALLAS: No, no. Please don’t apologize, because I love how you’ve woven your journey together with what you observed along the way and what you internalized then as the work that you felt called to do. That’s a great then segue way into talking a little bit about the hat that you now wear, which is leading the Vera Institute for Justice, an organization I’ve had the great pleasure to do a great amount of work over the years, including around criminal justice reform, and in particular, removing barriers for folks with a history of interaction with the criminal justice system in one way or another. Talk a little bit about what Vera does, what the organization’s mission and theory of change is, and how, in so many ways, it’s not the culmination, but a culmination of the journey you were just describing that’s one of your personal identity, but your learnings about that racial caste system, which is still so alive and well in American society at this point in our history.
TURNER: Well, there is a remarkable institution. And I’m actually, this is my third time through the place. I started out as a summer intern when I was in law school back in 1995. And I’ll say a little bit more about that in a second. But when you think about the reform of the criminal legal system, almost all of the things that have had an impact in reforming the system, whether it is alternatives to incarceration or college for and post-secondary education for incarcerated students or better services for survivors of crime or transitional work for people coming out of prison, Vera has touched all of those things in its 62-year existence. And it’s a remarkably storied place where over the course of its first three decades, it was known as an organization that worked in the trenches of the justice system, that sought to improve the administration of justice, and sought to do so by improving the way government actually delivered services.
So, over the course of those first 30 years, Vera’s methodology was to look at a problem, say, let’s take alternatives to incarceration, or that there was too much incarceration that was burdening people, and would develop a program to essentially provide an alternative approach. We would then operationalize that alternative, actually serve people, evaluate it. If it was effective, then what Vera would do would spin off that program as an independent entity. So, when I look around New York now, there are actually 20 different non-profits that were progeny of Vera as part of this methodology of developing an innovation, operationalizing it, and then spinning it off. So, Vera in it’s early days was like an incubator of great ideas. When I became president of the organization, I sensed that there was a change afoot, that if we really were serious about tackling mass incarceration and overcriminalization, that our technology couldn’t be to run demonstration projects and that would provide direct services, that that was not going to solve a big national problem, and that we needed to be thinking about addressing policy change and to do it at a degree of scale.
And so, our theory of change now is that over the ten years—and we can talk a little bit more about this as we get deeper into our discussion—that there’s been a sea change in the way this country looks at the criminal justice system. Some of it’s the harms that it causes have come into consciousness much more than I think they were, than was the case 15 years ago, 20 years ago. And we saw that happening, and we thought Vera needs to figure out how to play in a world where the politics is shifting, where there’s more possibility of change, where there’s greater and more effective activism, and so we actually have the possibility to change the policies that underpin this system of mass incarceration. And so, we have, over the past ten years, made a really strong pivot to move away from running demonstration projects or doing research to saying we need to identify some of the biggest problems that exist in the criminal legal system today and in the immigration system and develop solutions and then try to move those solutions at scale nationally. And we use a variety of tools to do that. We use advocacy, narrative. We use the technical assistance. Government officials ask us to come in and help them solve problems. And we use our research credibility to make sure that we are driving effective solutions that produce good outcomes.
VALLAS: And I’ll just note, as you provide that wonderful overview of some of how Vera approaches these issues and approaches your place in the larger policy and political and research-based ecosystem, one of the things I most appreciate among many about how Vera approaches your work to rethink the criminal legal system is how intersectional that approach has been for quite some time and continues to be. So, for example, one of the incubator roles that Vera has played is very close to my heart because you all incubated an organization called Activating Change, which is focused on the intersection of disability and the criminal legal system, and in particular, how people with disabilities are disproportionately warehoused by jails and prisons at rates that don’t often get talked about in larger criminal justice reform conversations. And so, just a shoutout to Activating Change, which is also, I’m very proud, a member of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative here at The Century Foundation. Just one example of how you guys approach this work so thoughtfully and in ways that are not constrained by silos because people don’t live their lives in silos.
So, Nick, I’d love to use this as the jumping off point to the rest of our conversation where we’re gonna get into, as we’ve been doing throughout this series of conversations, a key limiting belief that we as a collective need to identify and make visible, and so we can release and replace it as part of our larger work to pave a path to economic liberation in the U.S. And the limiting belief that I am particularly excited to get into with you—and I wanna say thank you to the Vera Institute for really coming up with this conversation and giving me a place to run with it—the limiting belief that I’m excited to get into it with you is that you have to be quote-unquote “tough on crime”—and I’m putting that in large scare quotes—to win political office. And so, to set the table a little bit—and you have some terrific new public opinion research and lots and lots of wisdom and experience to pepper this conversation with—but just to set the table for our listeners, talk a little bit about where the notion that you have to be tough on crime to win political office comes from. Willie Horton is a name that often gets invoked in these conversations. What’s the history there, for anyone who maybe isn’t old enough to have lived through it or isn’t familiar otherwise?
TURNER: I think that is a really powerful limiting belief. And Rebecca, we should make sure to talk about a second one that I think is a corollary of that, which is that you actually can have safety and justice at the same time.
VALLAS: Yes! Yes.
TURNER: They are not mutually exclusive. And when we talk a little bit more about the midterms, let’s get to that. But your question is such a good one: Where did this come from? And Willie Horton is indeed a, you know, is a character in the story. I mean, I think this notion that you have to be tough on crime to win political office, well, we could probably trace it back further. If we just sort of focus on sort of our modern epoch, the last 50 years or so, we really saw it start to emerge in the early ‘70s with the war on, the Nixonian war on crime. It wasn’t just Nixon. It was also Governor Rockefeller here in New York. I think part of what spawned it was—and Michelle Alexander writes about this far better than I do—but was racial resentment that was borne out of the civil rights, white voter reaction to the civil rights movement. And what politicians saw was that the drug problem, you know, problems with heroin that were manifesting in cities, the uprisings around police violence that were manifesting all over the country, in Newark, in L.A., and other places, that that could be branded as disorder, as criminality, and that that would be an effective political tool. And it turned out to be an incredibly powerful political tool that tapped into the racial resentment that existed in the country and that people were indeed feeling. And so, I think the modern root of it was that discovery in the early ‘70s that we could say, “Look at these burning cities. Look at the drug problems.” Governor Rockefeller proposed and had passed into law the Rockefeller drug laws, life time, you know, life sentences for drug dealers, for even possession of a certain amount. And voters ate that up. They wanted it.
And I think the reason that that happened is that politicians at that moment were able to tap into, recognize that if you could tap into fear and maximize it, that it would motivate people, and that it wasn’t a rational thing. It was actually a very emotional sort of, I sometimes refer to it as like a lizard brain reaction. If people are fearful and they’re scared, they want their fear to be addressed. They want it to be ameliorated. And so, adept politicians said, yeah, yeah, we’ll do that, and we’re gonna go a zero-tolerance route, and we’re gonna put people in prison and throw away the key. And that just proved to be monumentally effective. And so, that got kicked off in the ‘70s, and we just saw that ramp up all over the country, I mean, in Congress, but in states all over the country. And that’s what took us off on, you know, between the early ‘70s and like 2010, the prison population grew 700% in this country because of that sort of hydraulic system tapping into fear. “Here’s our answer. You just gotta be tough. You gotta lock people up and throw away the key. And that’s gonna keep you safe, and that’s gonna to solve your fear problem.”
And we see elements—we’ll talk more about the midterms in a bit—but we certainly see elements of that today, and we’ve seen them for the past decades. But I wanna, you mentioned Willie Horton. I think that that’s a really important thing to note. For those of your listeners who don’t remember Willie Horton, Willie Horton was someone who was released on furlough in Massachusetts over the gubernatorial term of Michael Dukakis. And George H.W. Bush essentially painted Michael Dukakis as being soft on crime because Willie Horton had gone out and committed a horrific act. And essentially, Bush used this exemplar of Democratic soft on crime to say to the American people, “You want this guy, you want Dukakis to be the president? This is what you’re gonna get. You’re gonna get a guy who lets murderers out on the street, and then they go commit other crimes.” And so, Willie Horton sort of became, and it was very politically astute to do. And at the point that that ad started showing, Dukakis had a 17-point percentage point lead leading up to the election, and that totally dissipated.
And so, that kind of tactic we’ve seen again and again. We’ve seen people talk about young Black men in cities, described them as “super predators,” as remorseless, nonhuman committers of crime. We see people, just as happened in the early ‘70s who talked about the uprisings in cities, we saw Trump talk about “cities of carnage” in his inaugural address. And what that did was sort of create a blackening of criminality. All of the iconography tapped into the racialized fears that people had and then amplified them that our job as elected officials is to protect you from criminals, Black criminals, parenthetically. And that played very well in a country that still grapples with racism. And so, I think politicians saw how effective that was and that the momentum of that just kept going and going. So, that’s a very long-winded answer to you, Rebecca. But that really is, you know, has been for quite some time the limiting belief, which is tough on crime is gonna get you elected, and it’s gonna keep you elected, and that that’s what you need to do to stay in public office.
VALLAS: So, if that’s the limiting belief, if that’s sort of what we’re up against as social change agents, folks who are looking to help move us along, right, in our trajectory of societal evolution here to a place that is not so governed and constrained by irrational fear, but rather is sort of a new way of thinking about our way of relating to one another, in recent years, the conversation on criminal justice reform, rethinking the criminal legal system, it’s changed a lot, and it’s actually changed a lot for the better.
TURNER: It has.
VALLAS: There was a period of really almost about a decade where we saw this trend of just strong and stronger and stronger bipartisan support among lawmakers, really at every level of government. We’re talking about within Congress, we’re talking about within statehouses across the country, red states, blue states alike, everybody saying, “All right, criminal justice reform, this is a thing we can all get behind.” And then that started to shift again and coinciding with the pandemic, coinciding to some extent with Black Lives Matter becoming really not just a national, but a global movement. And what we saw is really an uptick for the first time in quite some time in that tough-on-crime rhetoric. And so, that’s really what we’ve started to see the past couple of years. So, long shift of improvement, and now sort of a little bit of backsliding, one might call it.
But first, talk a little bit about what was behind that shift, and how you experienced that shift for the better, in the national debate around our criminal legal system and some of how we started to see tough on crime get replaced by the notion of smart on crime. And this really gets to some of that second and related limiting belief that you mentioned, the idea that somehow safety requires tough-on-crime policies. So, talk a little bit about what we’ve seen throughout the course of the past decade, and then that’ll help, I think, take us to present day.
TURNER: The period you describe, I loved the way you have just established that narrative arc, and it resonates for me a lot. The period of smart on crime I think of as sort of this golden moment that we experienced where indeed, we saw some really remarkable changes in public attitude, the behavior of elected officials, a shifting of incentives, where we really did get smarter, and we started to release the, get released from the hold of tough on crime. I think there are a variety of, you know, a few explanations for it. One, which I think doesn’t get spoken about enough is that the criminal justice system in America is so sprawling. It has touched the lives of so many people, but it’s become almost epidemic. So, there are about 70 million people in this country who have an arrest history. And there was a… but to get to the point even further, there was a study that was done in 2017 by Cornell University that showed that one in two American families—and I’m gonna repeat this stat because it’s a really important stat—one in two American families have had an immediate family member incarcerated at some point in the last ten years. That’s astonishing. It is one in two American families.
And so, I think the experience of being touched by the carceral system is actually far more epidemic than people recognized. And that that is at the foundation of why attitudes started to change because so many American families could see the damage that it caused. And so, that is the foundation where I think we started to get better and get smarter on crime. We also started to see these alliances between the right and the left and examples of very red states, Texas or Georgia back then, actually engaging in real reform. So, the notion that Democrats have always been worried about being outflanked on the right by Republicans because of the tough-on-crime approach, that started to erode as places like Texas and Georgia started to drive changes, reduce their incarcerated populations. And then you saw these odd bedfellows start to creep up: Koch Industries working with the ACLU, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, and this sort of growing movement on the right, a sort of collection of libertarians or of evangelists who believed in redemption, the creation of an organization called Right on Crime. So, it started to get depoliticized in a way, and that allowed for more opportunity and less sort of political electoral fear. So, that was a factor.
I think a third factor was that people just got wiser, and the consciousness of Americans expanded. Michelle Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow in 2011. And there’s a long sort of cultural, you know, list of cultural products, The 13th, many fantastic books that’ve been written. And the American public got smarter and wiser again about the harms and burdens that were caused by this system.
And the final point is that all of this happened when the general trends in the country were that crime was reaching historic lows, and so there was less fear that existed. And so, the cocktail of new political alliances, of a more conscious populace, of more people who had the experience of being impacted by that system, I think, fundamentally changed the conversation for years. And then we got to the mid-2010s, and videos of Black people being killed by the police provided an entry point for a general population to see the horrors of some of what existed and drew people in to understand those outrages better. So, that’s what I really have seen.
And let me just say one last thing on this, Rebecca, is that that wasn’t just a rise in attitudes about it’s better to be smart on crime and so on, but that produced real policy changes. The prison population in this country around 2009 was at its apex. It was about 2.5 million people, and it’s now down to about 1.9. And there’s also been a reduction in racial disparities in the system as well. So, we have a long, long way to go, but this rising of a smart-on-crime ethos produced real change for real people. And it’s important to remember that we’ve made some progress. We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but we’ve made a lot of progress.
VALLAS: I love how you tell that story and how you describe some of what was and still is underpinning that shift as the growth of a more conscious populace, right? And so, as awareness grew through one way or another, we started to see really a groundswell in public opinion that also was represented by, because it isn’t always, a large groundswell of growing support among folks who actually hold and run for elected office. And that’s where we’re gonna segue next. But I just wanna note that, just adding one additional dimension to the ways that consciousness can expand. Obviously, personal experience, personal lived experience of a particular phenomenon is perhaps the most common way that someone becomes more conscious of some thing or some larger truth. And as you recited some of the statistics, one in two—I’ll repeat, one in two—American families now having had someone in their household incarcerated within the past decade? That’s, of course, flanked by another horrifying statistic that I share more often than I wish were necessary, which is that one in three American adults now have some type of criminal record.
VALLAS: And so, the way I look at this as well is that, in a lot of ways, people impacted by the American criminal legal system went from being a them to being an us—
TURNER: Totally, yes.
VALLAS: —in the minds of the larger population and in the minds of many, many policymakers. And so, that’s my way of thinking and maybe putting some words to that large-scale consciousness shift that you were just so beautifully articulating. But then that takes us to present day.
TURNER: [laughs] Mmhmm. Here we go.
VALLAS: So, we need to reckon a little bit, right, with the meat and potatoes or the tofu and tempeh of the of the conversation.
VALLAS: So, I like to be inclusive because I have my vegan tendencies too. So, the notion that you have to be tough on crime to win political office or that safety requires tough-on-crime policies, it ends up being a really timely limiting belief for us to look at. And part of why I got very excited when you guys reached out and had the idea for this conversation, given that we just came out of a midterm election cycle here in the U.S. where fearmongering about crime featured really, really prominently. So, I’d love to give you a chance as we continue some of the table setting around how this limiting belief shows up in real time, how did we see crime and criminal justice getting talked about in this election cycle? And I’ll acknowledge it’s not like it’s brand new to see crime getting leveraged at the ballot box in American elections.
VALLAS: You were actually providing some of that history before. But how did this midterm cycle compare, in your opinion, to others in recent years as we’ve started to see that shift to smart on crime.
TURNER: Yeah, it was like a little trip in the Wayback Machine, again, and sort of a revisitation of the land of Willie Horton and super predators and cities of carnage. There was a lot of demagoguery. It was mostly on the side of Republicans, but not entirely. And what we saw, I mean, just to give you, you know, to paint the bigger picture, we should acknowledge that we are in a context where in the last two years, crime has risen in this country, all across the country. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a blue place or a red place. And that has people unnerved. And people have a right to want to be safe and secure, and government has a duty to make sure that everyone should be safe and secure. So, that’s the broader context. And what really became a powerful talking point for Republicans was the reason that you’re seeing this rise in crime, it really is because of Democrat-led reforms. Progressive prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York and Chicago and other places are to blame for this. Bail reform. These are things that emerged out of the golden age that I just talked about. Bail reform is to blame for the rise in crime. Here in New York, we have a Democratic mayor. That’s his main talking point. But that was really taken up by the Republicans.
And here’s a stat that makes it really clear, and this is from three weeks ago. But there was a look at the amount that was spent on election ads. And Republicans spent $157 million on crime and safety ads targeting the Democrats and painting them as soft, which was more than they spent on ads relating to the economy and to inflation: 157 million to 105 million. And so, that is an indication of how Republicans thought that this was really, that this was the golden ticket for gaining electoral power. I think the good news is that it actually proved to be far less effective than had been thought. And while there are pockets in the country—and we could talk more about that later—where I think those arguments had some effectiveness, generally speaking, the return on investment for the Republican Party in the midterms was far lower than what was anticipated. And what that tells me is that while people can still be afraid, they are smarter, and they are less credulous. They are less likely to believe that the tough-on-crime answer is the right answer, it’s the right solution.
And we actually did some polling. We looked at 4,000 voters in 11 battleground states over the summer. And what came out in that polling was really clear because we tested messages head to head. We tested sort of like the conventional template tough-on-crime message about Democrat cities being in disarray and disorder and that the rise in crime was a function of Democrats’ governing and then reform against an argument that said you have a right to be safe and secure. You also have a right to solutions, not to scare tactics. And there are solutions that can help us to be safe and secure. And here’s what they are. And when we tested those messages head to head, people preferred the latter one by 14 or 15 percentage points. And so, what that told us was that the old tough-on-crime rhetoric, while it still had some traction, it had far less than it has had in the past. And I think that the results in the election, in the midterms really bore that out. So, frustrating to see all of that money and demagoguery pour in. And we saw it in New York a lot, we saw it in Wisconsin, we saw it in Pennsylvania, but it didn’t have the traction that it has had in the past. And I think that’s the good news story that we really have to hang on to.
VALLAS: And Nick, that was a big part of why I thought this was a really important and timely conversation to have. One might say, “Yeah, the midterms already happened. We already know the outcome. Why are we still talking about the midterms?” Well, reason being that election cycles end up being moments of strong and often outsized national focus to particular issues, particular conversations, particular debates. And it feels very important to grapple with not just what the ingredients were that people were throwing into the cauldron before the midterm elections, but also what came out of it and what we actually learned in the course of this election. And so, that’s where I wanna really spend the balance of our time, is giving you a chance to really help tell the story of what we learned from these midterms so that we can learn the right lessons.
And I wanna make clear, as we have this conversation, this is not a partisan show. It’s a 501(c)(3) show. And at the same time, you and I both believe strongly doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. And the past decade and change, the golden era as you’re describing it—I love that. I’m gonna steal that—really ends up being proof and evidence of how much this can be a nonpartisan, bipartisan conversation. So, setting aside party politics, but looking instead at what we learned from these midterms, not just in terms of did Democrats win or did Republicans win in particular places, you all looked at what happened to candidates who were tough on crime in their rhetoric versus candidates who were talking smart on crime, who’s more or less likely to win both in terms of outcomes, but also, you asked those questions of the voters you were polling. And you’ve also looked a lot at the very question that I think, frankly, a lot of folks across this country have been wondering, but in particular, a lot of advocates who work on these issues have been wondering, which is, is criminal justice reform still popular with American voters, or should we be scared by this uptick in tough-on-crime rhetoric that you and I were describing before? So, I’d love to give you the chance to talk both from the information you get from that public opinion research you all have done, but also your own scrutiny of the outcome from these midterms. What lessons should we be learning when it comes to what happens for candidates who are tough on crime versus pro criminal justice reform/smart on crime? And what is it that American voters seem to want when it comes to criminal justice priorities and to safety today?
TURNER: Okay. Let’s see! Now, so, thank you so much for the setup, Rebecca. The first thing that I would say is that—and I spoke a tiny bit about this a moment ago—is that the tough-on-crime approach doesn’t work nearly as well as it had in the past and as folks believe that it could. And I wanna underscore the point that although as I observe the situation and I see that Republicans use this approach much more than Democrats, Democrats used it a lot, too. So, it’s a, you know, that it is a bipartisan evil to take the approach that we’ve been talking about. But people want to see something different. There was a fantastic study that was done in October by Forward, which is an advocacy organization that we do work with that showed that 70% of all likely voters—it didn’t matter what their political stripe was—thought that it was important to reduce the jail and prison population. And that eight in ten likely voters said that they supported criminal justice reform even more broadly, and that included 74% of Republicans and 80% of independents.
So, those are important data points to note, which is that even in a moment when crime is rising and people are feeling fearful, they want to see a different set of solutions. And neither party, we looked at some other polling that showed that neither party, the Republicans or the Democrats, held the confidence of the American people to produce real solutions. So, the advice, so one conclusion is American people want something different, that that golden age is not over, and that while people are grappling with what to do with their fear and desire for safety, they still want justice. That is really important to underscore. The second thing to note is what I just closed with, which is that neither party has really articulated effectively what the solutions are to give us safety and justice, that people don’t have faith in either party. So, both parties have to do a better job at making the case for how they can deliver safety and justice.
The third thing that I think is really interesting is people of all persuasion, criminal justice reform organizations have to acknowledge the importance of safety, not only have to acknowledge it in their messaging. But you heard me say earlier how important I thought it was to acknowledge that everyone deserves to feel safe and secure. And that what we saw in the past election was that in this moment where crime has risen, you can’t talk about justice without talking about safety. You can’t deflect from people’s safety concerns, and you have to take them on head on. And both parties have to have an affirmative approach, an affirmative set of solutions. And this has come up for debate a lot in sort of left politics because the use of public safety. We just talked a lot about Willie Horton and super predators and the rise of tough on crime. The clarion call was in order to have public safety, you have to be tough. And so, it has tended to be used as a sort of a racial, a racialized argument for support for the system of incarceration that we have. And so, it is hard, understandably, for people who want to undo that system to often acknowledge, to be able to acknowledge that safety matters. But it really does.
And as a Black man who lives in the City of New York and has many family members who live in Brooklyn, I have to. I know that we worry as much about safety as anyone else does and that when I’m talking about justice, I have to make a case for them about why we can have both safety and justice. But that if I ignore the safety argument, you know, my Uncle Clyde has since passed away. I would often talk about the damage that stop and frisk caused. And I had to…. And he wasn’t just there with me on the fairness and safety, on the fairness and justice arguments. I needed to help him to understand why that tactic actually didn’t produce the safety that he thought it was producing for him. So, that’s the third point, which is that we have to take—we all, it doesn’t matter our political stripe—we all have to take safety and security seriously. We have to have an affirmative vision for it. We have to be able to speak of it clearly. And that the old tactics aren’t ones that the public is buying anymore.
VALLAS: And Nick, for folks who are looking to dig more into some of the public opinion research you all did and also some of the lessons that you’re describing, I wanna make sure folks know they can check out a link to some of that in our show notes.
But in the last chunk of time that we have, I actually would love to pull on the thread that you just started to pull on there a little bit more. Given that we’re in the holiday season, folks are maybe spending more time with family or with other folks around the metaphorical table. And sometimes it’s the virtual table these days, for those of us who are maybe gathering on Zoom or in other ways, given that we’re still in a pandemic. But you mentioned your Uncle Clyde.
VALLAS: And I think it’s fair to say we all have an Uncle Clyde. [chuckles]
TURNER: We do.
VALLAS: And that person might not be named Clyde, but we all have someone, and possibly someones, in our family, our chosen family, in our lives who maybe is in that spot of saying, “All right. Well, everything you’re saying sounds all nice, but it’s puppies and rainbows until you can make it real. And we’ve gotta be safe. And safety is important, and justice is in conflict with it, or reform is in conflict with it.” Would you maybe spend a little bit of time sharing some advice with folks who are listening and who maybe might be spending some time with an Uncle Clyde at some point these holidays and who are wondering, “Well, how do I have that conversation about how safety and justice don’t need to be in conflict?” What does it look like to be a smart, informed person who maybe doesn’t have to be dropping tons of research statistics, but who’s able to speak in a thoughtful, informed, and grounded way about how safety and justice don’t need to compete?
TURNER: That is the conversation that many of us, I hope, are having at our holiday tables and that certainly the American public needs to continue to have. And I think it relates, Rebecca, to this, to the limiting belief that we began talking about, or this notion that you have to be tough on crime to win political office. Well, the reason that that’s the very effective limiting belief, or has been historically, is that people have, it’s mother’s milk in this country that safety is delivered by the police and jails and incarceration, that that’s what gives you public safety. And we’ve all been sort of raised in that context. And so, the first thing to recognize is that people have to be slowly disabused of that and have to understand that we’ve been programed to see that. But in fact, that there are other approaches that can really deliver safety. That’s not going to happen over the course of one dinner conversation. It’ll be many of them. But that’s part of what really as to happen, is that they’re not, safety and justice are not mutually exclusive. They can actually, we can have both.
So, I think there are, I guess there are three things that I would say are really important to do to have these conversations. The first is what we’ve just been talking about, which is to really own and acknowledge the fact that everyone deserves to feel safe and secure. I want that. I want that for my family. I want that for my aunts and uncles. Everyone has that right. And so, it’s a mistake to try to argue people out of that concern, which I’ve seen some of us in the reform movement do. So, I think it’s important to be empathetic and to acknowledge, that’s the end, to validate. I think that is the first thing. I think the second thing you just made a reference to that. I don’t know of a collection of statistics about why. You know, if someone says that they’re concerned about crime increasing, I don’t think it helps to tell people, “Well, listen. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was in the mid-’90s,” although that’s true. You can’t really engage in emotional argument with statistics, we have learned. We learned that through our polling. We’ve learned that in the work we do. I’ve learned that at my dinner table with Uncle Clyde. And so, slamming people on an emotional thing with a bunch of stats, folks stop listening. And then the most important thing is to really engage people and say, “There are solutions. Like, everyone does have a right to feel safe and secure. And what we wanna move away from are the scare tactics into what the real solutions are. And I want this just as much as you do, and we can do this.”
There are examples of approaches to violence that have shown effectiveness in dropping shootings in cities as varied as, you know, community-based approaches that have been effective in been Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York. The solutions are available to us. Things like restorative justice or making sure that when someone calls 911 because they’re concerned about someone who has a mental, who is having a mental health breakdown, that we wanna send trained mental health specialists, that that’s what’s going to solve the problem for people. And to maybe ask folks a question, which is to say, “So, look. There are other solutions other than just the ones that have been tried before. And talk to me about what you think makes for a safe and secure neighborhood.” And when you ask people that question, here’s what they talk about: access to good jobs, access to quality education, secure housing, cleanliness, and well-lit streets and parks. And so, what that goes, you know, access to health care. And what that goes to are the fundamentals of what create a safe and secure society. And so, if you ask people to talk about that, that’s where they’re going to go. They’re not gonna go like, “Oh, I think a really safe neighborhood is like thousands of cops on the street and big jails and prisons.” But if you can have that conversation with the people, you can also help them to understand how we need to be investing in those things as a fundamental in addition to the solutions other than law enforcement and incarceration. And I think we should be humble, and we should listen, and we should have real conversations, not one-sided lectures, so.
VALLAS: I love that. I love that. And of course, underpinning all of this is safety for whom, right? Because if you start to accept that we are all an us and that we are talking about safety for all of us as opposed to for some people, then you start to really make visible some of the tacit divisions and polarization on a racial level that underpins the notion that safety is in conflict with justice. Because if you’re walking down the street and your liberty might be taken away at any given moment just because you’re walking down the street while, say, Black, you aren’t gonna consider that to be a very safe neighborhood for you, are you? And it’s certainly going to be in conflict with justice. So, a lot of ways to think about this that really spin the paradigm.
Nick, We’re gonna run out of time, which makes me both sad and also makes me wanna say we’re gonna need to have you back at some point to have another conversation about some of those solutions. And I know Vera has tons and tons of research and policy writing and all kinds of wonderful resources, some of which, just a taste of which, we will include in show notes to send folks to for just a glimpse of some of what you do. But Nick, I’m so grateful to you for taking the time for this conversation and for all the work that you lead at Vera and that all your fabulous coworkers lead as part of so many different, important programs at the Vera Institute for Justice. Nick Turner is president and director of the Vera Institute. And you can find lots more, as I mentioned, about him and Vera and their fabulous work in show notes. Nick, thank you so much for being here today.
TURNER: Rebecca, thank you so much. I can’t wait to come back. And I loved, loved, loved having this conversation with you.
VALLAS: Me too. And we only scratched the surface, but it was a lot of fun to do with you, my friend. So, be well, be safe, take care, and stay healthy these holidays.
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TURNER: You too.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.